Immediately after Gavin Newsom beat back a recall effort, Democratic officials in California called for reforms to the process that commanded weeks of attention and cost $276 million — only to result in a landslide victory for a governor who was up for reelection in 14 months anyway.
Even before Newsom resoundingly defeated the attempted recall, reforming the process had been a focus for some Democrats in the state’s capital of Sacramento.
Those calls for change were renewed after Tuesday’s results by people like state Assemblyman Marc Berman, who leads the legislative body’s Elections Committee, and state Sen. Steve Glazer, who leads the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee.
The two plan to hold hearings in the coming months and ultimately propose constitutional changes after the legislature reconvenes early next year.
“There is clearly a lot of interest in reforming this process, making it more democratic,” Berman said Wednesday.
Newsom said before and after the recall election this week that the process had been “weaponized.”
“It’s been perverted,” he told a crowd of union workers in Fresno last week. “It can’t wait a few months? Quite literally a few months? To go next June and go to battle?”
Next year’s governor’s race starts with a primary in June. The top two finishers — regardless of party affiliation — advance to the November general election.
Calling for reform
The recall election process was added to California’s constitution 110 years ago and initially intended as a way of rooting out corruption.
To result in a vote, recall attempts in California require the petition signatures of at least 12% of the voter turnout in the last election for the targeted office.
Recall efforts are common in California: Since 1913, there have been 179 attempts to recall state elected officials, the California secretary of state’s office said. (Of those, 55 have targeted a governor.) Only 11 have reached the ballot. And six have been successful, resulting in the removal of two state assembly members, three state senators and one governor: Democrat Gray Davis in 2003.
Davis, who remains the only governor to be successfully recalled, was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Proponents of the changes have put forward a series of suggestions, including increasing the number of signatures needed to initiate a recall and raising the threshold for candidates who can run as a possible replacement.
California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin tweeted Tuesday night that the effort to recall Newsom was “a $276 million waste just to reaffirm 2018’s results with an election coming in 2022.”
He said the recall process should see a series of reforms, including elevating the lieutenant governor to the top job if a governor is recalled rather than having Californians vote on a second question on recall ballots on who should replace the sitting governor.
Democratic state Assemblymember Kevin McCarty said on Twitter that he’d co-author Mullin’s proposal.
State Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat who was recalled himself in 2018 but won back his Senate seat in 2020, has proposed legislation that would reform recalls, including one bill that would allow those targeted by recall efforts to access the list of petition signers to make sure they understood what they had signed and were not misled and one bill that would ban recall organizers from paying people to circulate petitions.
California Secretary of State Shirley Weber has also pushed for changes to the system, citing the high cost of running an off-year election.
“If the state of California is going to spend nearly $300 million to have a special election, it better be worth having — which is to say it should be structured to promote broad participation and the decision to hold an election should reflect the true will of the people,” Weber said in a statement to CNN. “The recall process as currently designed, which hasn’t been revised in a century, makes those goals difficult — if not impossible — to achieve.”
Weber said that her focus in this recall election was “ensuring that every legal vote cast in this election is counted” and that the result “will reflect the will of the people.” But she noted that the structure of the current recall process makes that “an uphill climb” and that she hopes to “level the playing field” in the future.
‘It’s a very difficult process as it is’
The latest recall was in some ways an attempt to hack a California election system in which Republicans otherwise have little chance of victory, by turning the choice of governor into a two-step process: First, voters would decide whether to keep or remove Newsom. Then, in a separate question, they’d pick a potential replacement. And weeks before Election Night, it looked like that approach might work, with polls showing Newsom in serious jeopardy of being recalled.
The strategy faltered as it became clear the only viable candidate to replace Newsom was Larry Elder, a right-wing talk radio host with a history of incendiary comments and socially conservative positions that were a mismatch for the electorate of the sapphire-blue state.
His emergence turned what had started as an up-or-down vote on Newsom into a two-candidate race that more closely resembled a typical election cycle. That evolution in Newsom’s favor came in large part because of Newsom’s team’s decision to discourage any other big-name Democrats from entering the race — leaving Democratic voters with no backup plan if Newsom was recalled.
Orrin Heatlie, the retired Yolo County sheriff’s sergeant whose group, the California Patriot Coalition, organized the recall, told Fox 40 in Sacramento on Wednesday that the state’s recall laws should not be reformed.
“It’s a very difficult process as it is,” Heatlie said, noting that his petition drive was the only one of several efforts to recall Newsom to go forward.
“If they were that easily done, then it would be something that people did all the time,” he said. “Very few of them get as far as this one did, for good reason. It’s a very difficult process as it stands.”
Heatlie compared his group to the “Bad News Bears,” saying recall proponents were “the underdog all the way.” He argued that the effort was worthwhile despite its failure to remove Newsom from office.
“I think it did affect a change, because the government officials here in Sacramento know that the people are paying attention to what they’re doing and we’ve raised concern,” Heatlie said. “We generated a conversation that’s needed to take place in California for a very long time. And I think as we move forward, this momentum, this movement, is going to continue to grow and go.”
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